A generation ago Emo Philips, he of the wild eyes and the page boy haircut, belonged to a vanguard of quirky comedians (Steven Wright, Pee-Wee Herman) who seemed determined to permanently kill off the old take-my-wife-please school of one-liner shtick.
So who was that at the Comedy Club on State Street last night delivering all those one-liners about his ex-wife ("I hate being divorced; I'd rather be a widower")? It was indeed Emo Philips who performed a very funny set to a very full nightclub. But at age 50, he has eased into a persona less like the troubled child of his 1980s performances and more like, well, a veteran telling finely crafted jokes like this one: "I'm not a Republican, but I'm saving up to be one."
As it happens, you need only view a little old Emo Philips material on YouTube to recall that this sort of one-liner was always the core of his act. What was quirky about him back then was, among other things, his stilted, sometimes panicked delivery, and in fact that remains. But the page boy haircut is gone, replaced by an altogether conventional, and startlingly silver, coif. And as if to go with his grey hair, a certain weariness kept creeping into Philips' act last night -- in all those ex-wife jokes, for example.
But even when his material touched on the familiar, his oddness kept clubgoers guessing. For example, a relatively straightforward punch line about that hoariest of comedic themes, a trip to the doctor, earned the performance's biggest laugh when it came at the end of a surreal one-man vignette starring bizarre characters with bizarre accents.
Philips was at great ease with the crowd, and he interviewed audience members sitting nearest the stage. One man turned out to be a certain kind of comedian's dream -- he was a lawyer, and a Republican -- and Philips concluded many of his jokes about the Grand Old Party by simply gesturing at the man, as if to say: I rest my case.
Philips also made light of sexual abuse and -- viciously -- Mormons, but whenever he teetered on the brink of rank offensiveness, he simply picked up the stool sitting on the stage and wielded it as a lion tamer would.
Emo Philips performs at 8 and 10:30 tonight at the Comedy Club on State Street.